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Posts Tagged ‘biographies of women artists’

Edith Head in an undated photo

Edith Head in a Paramount Pictures shot. Undated

It was summer vacation of 1924 and Edith Head, 27, wanted a new job. She was tired of making peanuts – $1500 a year – teaching French and art at the Hollywood School for Girls. She did have a husband but he was a heavy drinker. If Edith wanted to improve her quality of life, it was up to her to make it happen. However, there were few jobs open to women in the 1920s but secretarial work and teaching, and neither paid much.

One day, Edith spotted a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times. The Famous Players-Lasky Studio (later, Paramount Pictures) was looking for a sketch artist to create costumes for a new Cecil B. DeMille silent film, “The Golden Bed.” Edith wanted that job. One problem: Edith Head was no artist. She could not draw the human form.

She had exaggerated her qualifications to teach art when applying at the Hollywood School for Girls. True, she was highly educated, and was more than qualified to teach French – but not art. She had received a B.A. in Letters and Sciences with Honors in French at University of California at Berkeley (1919) and a Master’s Degree in Romance Languages at Stanford (1920) – pretty impressive for a girl who grew up in mining camps in the deserts of Mexico and Nevada. But she had no training in art. Once she had been hired at the girls’ school, she had swiftly enrolled in evening art classes at the Chouinard Art School to gain some artistic skill, learning just enough each night to keep one step ahead of the next day’s lesson for her students. So far, though, she could only draw seascapes.

Undaunted, Edith wrote the studio for an interview. She received a prompt reply, telling her to be at the studio the very next morning at 10 a.m., bringing sketches. Sketches? All she had to show of her own were seascapes.

Agnes Ayres stars in Cecil B. DeMille's 1921 film, "Forbidden Fruit." In silent films, costume was an extremely important element. DeMille's films were always lavish extravaganzas.

Agnes Ayres stars in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1921 film, “Forbidden Fruit” at Famous Players-Studio (later Paramount Pictures). In silent films, costume was an extremely important element. DeMille’s films were always lavish extravaganzas.

Edith did not know what to do but she knew that she wanted that job! Soon a light bulb went on in her brain:

That night I made the rounds at Chouinard (Art School) and collected all the students’ best landscapes, seascapes, oils, watercolors, sketches, life, art, everything.”

Some accounts say that Edith actually erased her friends’ names from their sketches and substituted her own. That next day, she appeared at the studio for her interview, a portfolio of other people’s work in hand. Howard Greer, head of the studio wardrobe department, described the interview in his memoirs:

…A young girl with a face like a pussy cat crossed with a Fujita drawing appeared with a carpetbag full of sketches. There were architectural drawings, plans for interior decoration, magazine illustrations, and fashion design. Struck dumb with admiration for anyone possessed of such diverse talent, I hired the gal on the spot.” (1)

Her salary was $40 a week, more than double what she made teaching.

The very next day, Edith reported for work. She sat at her drafting table, her canvas, blank. The jig was up. She couldn’t draw. Greer recalled:

[She] looked out from under her bangs with the expression of a frightened terrier.” (1)

Edith Head

Edith Head

Edith confessed that she had misrepresented her talent, taking credit for others’ work. Inexplicably, Greer did not fire Edith. Curiously, he took her under his wing and taught her how to sketch. Within six months, she sketched in his style and was quite accomplished. Later, when asked about misrepresenting her talent at the interview, she tossed off the fraud as “youthful and naïve indiscretion” and something she would never do again. (Two more lies!)

Whereas Edith dismissed the padding of her resume as an isolated incident, never to be repeated, designing colleague Natalie Visart did not see it that way. She commented:

Edith lied when the truth would have served her better.” (2)

Edith was to have few friends in life, among them, President Richard Nixon and wife Pat and actress Elizabeth Taylor. Biographer David Chierichetti said that

Her lies made her feel in control….Her lying – even more than her blazing ambition – was what turned people against her.”

Reportedly, director John Farrow would not let Edith work on his 1953 film, “Botany Bay,” as he had caught her in too many lies in the past.

But I digress.

Meanwhile, back to the summer of 1924, Edith was working at the bottom of the totem pole in the wardrobe design department.

My first big assignment was to do the Candy Ball costumes for Cecil B. de Mille’s film, “The Golden Bed.” I drew girls dressed as lollypops, peppermint sticks and chocolate drops….

Then came the crisis. I’d drawn very elongated girls with bodies like peppermint sticks and candy cane fingernails two feet long. Came the day of the shooting and, shortly after, came a blast from Mr. DeMille….The peppermint sticks had started cracking during the dance routine….whenever the dancers got within a half a foot of each other, the candy would stick.”

Also, under the hot lights on the set, the chocolate drops melted, and the production had to be halted. Edith went back to the drawing board and designed dresses studded with marshmallows for the peculiar film.

The "Candy Ball" scene from Cecil B. DeMille's 1924 film, "The Golden Bed." Men surround women wearing marshmallow dresses, pull off the sweets, and eat them.

The “Candy Ball” scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1924 film, “The Golden Bed.” Men surround women wearing marshmallow dresses, pull off the sweets, and eat them.

In another of Edith’s costume faux pas, Director Raoul Walsh had to stop production on “The Wanderer” (1925) when one of the show’s elephants began eating its costume – wreaths of flowers and grapes and anklets of rose petals.

As Greer had suspected, Edith did have a natural talent for costume design and, before long, it showed up. She began to score more hits than misses. She became a savvy politician. Although the studio maintained that the actresses were not allowed any say in what they wore in the films, Edith got around that rule. She began to talk with the stars, asking each actress what she liked to wear, what she thought she looked good wearing. Edith became known as “The Dress Doctor,” as she approached the design of each actress’s costumes with their tastes and figures in mind, how they moved, talked, and were photographed.

Costume designer Edith Head and film star Gloria Swanson. Undated photo

Costume designer Edith Head and film star Gloria Swanson. Undated photo

In this way, she developed a large and loyal following of actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly even though there were stars like Mary Martin, Hedy Lamarr, and Claudette Colbert who didn’t like to work with her.

Edith boasted that she was a magician. She took ordinary women, and, through fashion magic, transformed them into screen sirens.

Accentuate the positive and camouflage the rest,” Edith liked to say.

Edith designed costumes for almost a thousand movies including westerns, biblical epics, war movies, and dramas. Her style was not flashy but flattered the star and advanced the story line. Here are some of Edith Head’s costume designs:

mae west she done him wrong

Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong,” 1933. Costumes by Edith Head.

Dorothy Lamour wearing a new version of a sarong in "Jungle Princess," 1936. Costumes by Edith Head.

Dorothy Lamour wearing a new version of a sarong in “Jungle Princess,” 1936. Costumes by Edith Head.

 

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve," 1941. Costumes by Edith Head.

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in “The Lady Eve,” 1941. Costumes by Edith Head.

Veronica Lake in "I Married a Witch," 1942. Costumes by Edith Head.

Veronica Lake in “I Married a Witch,” 1942. Costumes by Edith Head.

Hedy Lamarr in "Samson and Delilah," 1949. Costumes by Edith Head.

Hedy Lamarr in “Samson and Delilah,” 1949. Costumes by Edith Head.

 

Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," 1950. Costumes by Edith Head.

Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” 1950. Costumes by Edith Head.

Elizabeth Taylor in "A Place in the Sun," 1951. Costumes by Edith Head.

Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun,” 1951. Costumes by Edith Head.

Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday," 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday,” 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

Edith Head sketch for Grace Kelly suit in "Rear Window," 1954

Edith Head sketch for Grace Kelly suit in “Rear Window,” 1954

Grace Kelly in "Rear Window," 1954, wearing green suit shown in above sketch. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in “Rear Window,” 1954, wearing green suit shown in above sketch. Costumes by Edith Head.

Shown here with costar Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly wears the green suit shown in the sketch above, sans jacket. "Rear Window," 1954.  Costumes by Edith Head.

Shown here with costar Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly wears the green suit shown in the sketch above, sans jacket. “Rear Window,” 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

Sketch for evening gown by Edith Head for Grace Kelly in "Rear Window," 1954.

Sketch for evening gown by Edith Head for Grace Kelly in “Rear Window,” 1954.

From sketch above, Grace Kelly wears an evening gown from "Rear Window," 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

From sketch above, Grace Kelly wears an evening gown from “Rear Window,” 1954. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly models sunsuit from "To Catch a Thief," 1955. Costume by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly models sunsuit from “To Catch a Thief,” 1955. Costume by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief," 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief," 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Edith Head sketch for gold masquerade gown for Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief," 1955.

Edith Head sketch for gold masquerade gown for Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” 1955.

As in sketch above, Grace Kelly wears masquerade gown in "To Catch a Thief," 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

As in sketch above, Grace Kelly wears masquerade gown in “To Catch a Thief,” 1955. Costumes by Edith Head.

Anne Baxter in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 remake of "The Ten Commandments." Costumes by Edith Head.

Anne Baxter in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of “The Ten Commandments.” Costumes by Edith Head.

Edith Head was awarded eight Oscars and was nominated 35 times for best costume design.

Legendary costume designer Edith Head (1897-1981) displays her 8 Oscar trophies. Originally, she wore blue tinted glasses because it allowed her to view fabrics as they would look in a black-and-white movie. Smoky lenses also made her inscrutable as well as disguising a slightly-crossed right eye. Undated photo

Legendary costume designer Edith Head (1897-1981) displays her 8 Oscar trophies. Originally, she wore blue tinted glasses because it allowed her to view fabrics as they would look in a black-and-white movie. Smoky lenses also made her inscrutable as well as disguising a slightly-crossed right eye. Undated photo

Her brilliant career, that began with a con, was marred by controversy. Often economical with the truth, she sometimes claimed credit for designs that were not her own. She accepted the Oscar for “Sabrina”(1955) although two gowns and one suit wore by Audrey Hepburn – the Parisian look that dominates the movie – were truly designed by then rising French designer Hubert de Givenchy.

Audrey Hepburn wears three dresses from the movie, "Sabrina," 1954. Edith Head designed the "Cinderella" clothes that Audrey's character wears before she travels to Paris. Upon her return, she wears a wardrobe designed by Hubert de Givenchy. Edith Head accepted the Academy Award for Best Costume Design and took credit for De Givenchy's work.

Audrey Hepburn wears three dresses from the movie, “Sabrina,” 1954. Edith Head designed the “Cinderella” clothes that Audrey’s character wears before she travels to Paris. Upon her return, she wears a wardrobe designed by Hubert de Givenchy. Edith Head accepted the Academy Award for Best Costume Design and took credit for De Givenchy’s work.

Edith said the Oscar belonged to her because the costumes had been made in her department. In her acceptance speech, she did not thank de Givenchy. Worse still, when the little black dress became enormously popular, copied by the thousands by clothing manufacturers, Edith made sketches of it for books and appearances and signed them with her name. (3) Only after Edith’s death did Givenchy, a true gentleman, confirm that the black cocktail dress with the bateau neckline and ballerina skirt was his original design, and had been made under Edith’s supervision at Paramount.The Sting movie poster

In 1974, Edith Head was awarded her eighth and final Oscar for her work in “The Sting,” starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. In her trademark bangs, bun, and tinted owl glasses, Edith flitted happily onto the stage, trilling:

“Just imagine dressing the two handsomest men in the world, and then getting this!” she said, holding out her award.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman play ping pong. Undated photo.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman play ping pong. Undated photo.

She was promptly sued by a costume illustrator who said the work on “The Sting” was hers, not Edith’s. Famous designer Bob Mackie, Cher‘s favorite, who had also worked in the Paramount costume department, said of Edith:

She got more press out of The Sting than anything she ever did and she didn’t even do it.” (4)

(1) Greer, Howard. Designing Male: A Nebraska Farm Boy’s Adventures in Hollywood and with the International Set. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951.

(2) Chierichetti, David. Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

(3) Head, Edith. The Dress Doctor. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.

(4) Jorgensen, Jay. Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. New York: Lifetime Media, 2010.

Readers, for more on Edith Head and her costume design, click here.

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Richard Taylor and Elizabeth Burton. Undated photo

Richard Taylor and Elizabeth Burton. Undated photo

On July 4, 1973, American film actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) issued the following press release:

“I am convinced it would be a good and constructive idea if Richard [Burton] and I separated for a while. Maybe we loved each other too much. I never believed such a thing was possible. But we have been in each other’s pockets constantly, never being apart but for matters of life and death, and I believe it has caused a temporary breakdown of communication.

I believe with all my heart that the separation will ultimately bring us back to where we should be – and that’s together. I think in a few days’ time I shall return to California, because my mother is there, and I have old and true friends there, too.” (1)

Leaving Richard at the Long Island estate of his lawyer Aaron Frosch, Elizabeth checked out of her room at the Regency Hotel, Park Avenue, New York and flew to Los Angeles. She had to put distance between herself and Richard’s endless drinking, their endless quarreling. She hid from the paparazzi at the Hollywood home of her old and dear friend, Edith Head, the legendary fashion designer for Paramount Pictures. Upon Elizabeth’s arrival, “Edie” got out the bottle of Jack Daniels  for the two of them to share.

Elizabeth considered Edith to be like a second mother to her. Edith returned the affection. In her Spanish-style home in Coldwater Canyon that she shared with her husband Bill, she had placed a plaque at the bottom of the stairwell that read,

ELIZABETH TAYLOR SLEEPS HERE

 

Edith Head designed costumes at Paramount Pictures for 43 years. (1952)

Edith Head designed costumes at Paramount Pictures for 43 years. (1952)

Edith Head (1897-1981) had won one of her eight Oscars for best costume design for “A Place in the Sun” (1951) in which Elizabeth played socialite Angela Vickers. Taylor’s costumes were so beautiful in that film that they set fashion trends for prom and ball gowns that year. (2)

One evening gown, in particular, was a huge sensation and remains an iconic dress today. It was strapless, to show off Elizabeth’s gorgeous shoulders, which Edith considered one of her best assets, with a sweetheart neckline that showed just a trace of virginal décolletage.

An Edith Head sketch of Elizabeth Taylor's white tulle gown in "A Place in the Sun." (1952)

An Edith Head sketch of Elizabeth Taylor’s white tulle gown in “A Place in the Sun.” (1952)

The bodice was highlighted by clusters of tiny fabric violets. Below the nipped in waist, a full skirt erupted in countless yards of white tulle studded with white velvet violets. It was a flattering silhouette for Elizabeth who Edith considered “one of the prettiest human beings I’ve ever seen.”

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun." (1952)

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun.” (1952)

Eighteen years later, Elizabeth wore another of Edith’s designs to the 1970 Academy Awards, at which she presented the Best Picture Award to “Midnight Cowboy.” It was a chiffon dress – in violet, to match Elizabeth’s famous violet eyes – with a plunging V-neckline. Nestled in Elizabeth’s tanned cleavage was the famous 69-carat, pear-shaped Taylor-Burton diamond, a diamond as big as the Ritz that cost well over a million dollars. It was one of many outstanding pieces in the Elizabeth Taylor Jewelry Collection.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor arrive at the 1970 Academy Awards. Burton was nominated for Best Actor in "Anne of a Thousand Days" but did not win.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor arrive at the 1970 Academy Awards. Burton was nominated for Best Actor in “Anne of a Thousand Days” but did not win.

Elizabeth had a love affair with jewelry. She had long admired one piece that Edith Head often wore, a gold and ivory necklace made up of Victorian opera tokens.

Edith Head with sketch

Film costume designer Edith Head wearing her Victorian opera token necklace.

The Edith Head Necklace

The Edith Head Necklace

In 1981, Edith passed away, leaving her necklace to Elizabeth in her will.

E Taylor and e Head necklace

Elizabeth Taylor wears a Victorian opera token necklace of ivory and gold, a gift from her friend Edith Head. Undated photo

I had the opportunity to see the Edith Head Necklace in 2011 at the Christie’s auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection in New York. It was my favorite piece of all of Elizabeth’s jewelry. The necklace was estimated to sell at between $1,500 and $2,000, but it sold for $314,500!

(1) Kashner, Sam and Schoenberger, Nancy. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

(2) Jorgensen, Jay. Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. New York: Lifetime Media, 2010.

Readers: For more on Elizabeth Taylor, click here. For more on Edith Head, click here.

 

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About a month before doctors amputated her right leg at the knee, Frida Kahlo drew a picture of her severed feet on a pedestal. It is one of many diary entries in which she expresses her anguish at the impending operation. In public, though, she acted lighthearted, saying playfully to friends, "Did you know they are going to cut off my paw?"

From Frida Kahlo’s diary, “Why do I need feet if I have wings to fly.”

About a month before doctors amputated her right leg at the knee, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo drew a picture of her severed feet on a pedestal. Instead of healthy veins protruding from the amputated feet, dead, thorny vines snake out. The flesh is yellow, anemic, and the page is stained with her blood.

This is one of many diary entries in which Frida explores her anguish over the impending operation. She knew that she had no other choice but to cut off her leg. In truth, her right leg was skinny, crippled, shriveled, and lame. It hung from her body as if it were broken. Two toes were missing from the foot. The leg was infected with gangrene. It hurt her terribly.

Her husband Mexican muralist Diego Rivera urged her to accept her fate and submit to yet another operation. Maybe she would be able to get a good prosthetic leg, he urged, and walk a little.

For Diego’s sake, she said to the doctors,

“Prepare me for the operation!”

Then, putting on a brave face for her friends, she asked them, 

“Did you know they are going to cut off my paw?”

For more on Frida Kahlo on this blog, click here.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1983.
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait. Introduction by Carlos Fuentes. Essays by Sarah M. Lowe. New York: Abradale, 1995.

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From ABC News/Univision

Frida Kahlo’s Closet is Opened After 58 Years

Frida Kahlo is seen smoking after a 1946 operation.

Frida Kahlo, wearing Chinese pajamas, is seen smoking after a 1946 operation.

“Imagine being in Frida Kahlo‘s childhood home and opening up a closet that has been locked for decades. Inside are hundreds of personal items – personal photographs, love letters, medications, jewelry, shoes, and clothing that still hold the smell of perfume and the last cigarette she smoked.

That is exactly what happened when Hilda Trujillo Soto, the director of the Frida Kahlo Museum opened the closets that had been locked since the Mexican artist’s death in 1954. Inside were over 300 items belonging to Frida Kahlo, and now, a wide array of what was found is on display at the Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City.

The exterior of Frida Kahlo's home called Casa Azul outside Mexico City, 1952.

The exterior of Frida Kahlo’s home called Casa Azul outside Mexico City, 1952.

The exhibit, Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo, a collaboration between the museum and Vogue Mexico, brings to an end an elaborate 50 year scheme to keep private the intimate details of Kahlo’s life. It started when she died in 1954, as a distraught Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist and Frida Kahlo’s husband, locked the doors to her closet and never let anyone enter for fear that the contents would be mishandled and ruined.”

Kahlo contracted polio when she was six, leaving her right leg shorter and thinner than her left. Then, when she was 18, a metal tube pierced  through Frida’s abdomen during a bus crash, subjecting her to painful operations and  long periods of bed rest throughout her life.

In keeping with her flamboyance and ebullient spirit, Frida wore long, flowing tehuana skirts, lacy and colorful, that hid this affliction and celebrated her Mexican heritage.

frida-kahlo-dresses-on-display-exhibition-in-mexico-city

Frida Kahlo’s dresses in the Tehuantepec style are on exhibit in Mexico City at the Casa Azul, January 2013.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait, 1848, shows her dressed in traditional Tehuantepec costume.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait, 1848, shows her dressed in traditional Tehuantepec costume.

Later in life, Frida’s right leg had to be amputated. Included in the exhibit is a ornate red boot with the prosthetic leg Kahlo wore after the amputation.

Mexico Frida Fashion

A prostetic leg belonging to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is on exhibit at the Casa Azul in Mexico City (Jan. 2013). Frida’s fashion sense combined both form and function – a red boot attached to an artificial leg. Frida Kahlo’s right leg was amputated in 1953 due to gangrene.

Also on view are three ornate corsets, one styled by Jean-Paul Gaultier in memory of Frida after her death. Frida had to wear plaster corsets to alleviate her excrutiating spine pain.

Frida Kahlo, 1941, displays her Communist sympathies with her therapeutic plaster chest cast

Frida Kahlo, 1941, displays her Communist sympathies with her therapeutic plaster chest cast

For more on Frida Kahlo on this blog, click here.

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"What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me," by Frida Kahlo, 1938. Frida painted herself in the bath. The right foot shows a bleeding sore between the deformed big toe and second toe. By the early 1940s, Frida would be in constant pain from her back and right foot. She would be forced to take to her bed and wear a series of body casts.

(First see “Frida Kahlo Had Childhood Polio Part 1.”)

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo‘s childhood polio caused more than a slight deformity in her right leg. The decreased circulation to the limb caused her lifelong problems and pain.

From November 1-15, 1938, the first exhibition of Frida’s paintings was held at the avant-garde Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. At her opening, Frida looked spectacularly exotic in her Mexican costume, her starched bouffant skirts falling below her ankles.

"Frida on White Bench," photograph by Nickolas Muray, 1939

While the effect of her unusual outfit was striking and a perfect complement to her 25 paintings displayed in Mexican folkloric frames of metal, glass, and tin, Frida’s skirts played more than a decorative role. Frida explained:

“I must have full skirts and long, now that my sick leg is so ugly.”

The press was delighted with the paintings and Frida was the “flutter of the week in Manhattan.” During the course of the exhibition, Julien Levy wanted to show Frida the town. He took her bar-hopping in Harlem. He recalls:

“She didn’t jump to it, possibly because she was tired, and she couldn’t enjoy herself late at night. Bar-hopping is not easy to do if you are not light on your legs. She couldn’t overcome invalidism. After walking three blocks, her face would get drawn, and she’d begin to hang on your arm a little bit. If you kept walking, that would force her to say, ‘We must get a cab.'”

Frida’s right foot was the problem – again. She had developed warts on the sole of her foot. Of course, her spine ached. After her exhibit closed, she fell seriously ill. She saw a round of specialists, finally discovering Dr. David Glusker, who succeeded in closing the trophic ulcer that she had had on her foot for years.

Frida Kahlo in bed c.1950s

That was in 1938. Frida was to suffer pain for many more years, her degenerative spinal condition a result of the childhood polio and her streetcar accident in 1926. Some historians have suggested that Frida may have suffered from yet a third problem. They think that Frida could have been born with spina bifida, which further complicated her spine and leg issues.

Over the course of her lifetime, Frida would endure over 30 surgeries, multiple hospitalizations, and countless months of bedrest. Frida managed the constant pain with copious amounts of brandy and pills.

In 1953, gangrene set into her right foot and her leg had to be amputated below the knee. Frida was devastated.

After the 1953 amputation of her right leg below the knee because of her gangrenous right foot, Frida drew this image of her feet in her diary. She tried to make light of the loss, writing the poignant phrase, "Pies para que los quiero, si tengo alas pa' volar?" (Feet, why do I want them if I have wings to fly?)

The next year, Frida was dead from a morphine overdose, self-administered, probably a suicide.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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“Portrait of My Father,” (1951), Mexican artist Frida Kahlo shows us her photographer father Guillermo Kahlo with the tool of his trade – a camera.

From an early age, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) identified with her German-born father, Guillermo Kahlo, a portrait photographer. In her diary, she wrote (in Spanish):

“My childhood was marvelous because, although my father was a sick man [ he had epilepsy], he was an immense example to me of tenderness, of work (photographer and also painter)….”

Frida Kahlo as photographed by her father, Guillermo Kahlo (1872-1941) in 1926 at about age 19. This was taken after Frida's horrific bus accident.

Guillermo Kahlo taught young Frida how to use a camera and how to develop, retouch, and color photographs. He adored Frida and photographed her often. Perhaps this is when Frida developed her obsession for self-portraiture.

Frida Kahlo (l) at about age 19 with her family (c. 1927)

Definitely, by this time, Frida Kahlo had discovered how to seduce the camera. In this 1927 (perhaps 1924?) family photo, Frida appears androgynous, flouting convention by wearing a man’s suit and slicking back her hair. She was quite the rebel. Meanwhile, her sisters and mother pose demurely nearby in period flapper attire. Frida, however, has adopted a jaunty pose and an expression that says:

“Don’t look at them. Look at me!”

We can’t help staring at her.  At 19 she is already an exotic creature. Thus began Frida Kahlo’s long and celebrated career of using personal dress as theatre.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

At the age of six, Frida Kahlo was stricken with polio. It affected her right leg. She spent nine months in bed.

“‘It all began with a horrible pain in my right leg from the muscle downward,” she remembered. ‘They washed my little leg in a small tub with walnut water and small hot towels.'”

Once she was out of bed, her doctor insisted that Frida exercise to build up her weaker leg. Her father got her involved in all kinds of sports, a decidedly male domain in 1914 Mexico. However, Frida played soccer, boxed, wrestled, and became a champion swimmer. (1) She climbed trees, rowed on the lakes of Chapultepec Park, and played ball.

Frida Kahlo is shown at far right, with sister Cristina (l) and best friend Isabel Campos (c). The photo was taken by Frida’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, in 1919, when Frida was about 12.

Despite her best efforts, her right leg remained very skinny. To disguise that fact, she wore three or four socks on her thin calf and shoes with a built-up right heel. While some of her friends admired her stamina despite her deformity, other children teased her:

“Frida’s childhood friend, the painter Aurora Reyes, says: ‘We were quite cruel about her leg. When she was riding her bicycle, we would yell at her, ‘Frida, pata de palo!’ [Frida, peg leg], and she would respond furiously with lots of curses.'”

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at a demonstration of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, May 1, 1929

In this photo, Frida is shown marching in a skirt that hits below the knee – thus exposing her obviously thinner right calf. Not long after this photo was taken, Frida began to wear elaborate, floor-length skirts –  to hide her emaciated leg from public view.

Frida Kahlo with pigeons, ca. 1940s by Juan Guzmán.

(1) Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York, Harper, 1983.

Now read: “Frida Kahlo Had Childhood Polio Part 2.”

READERS: For even more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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